Toward a Discussion Pedagogy

In the wake of this post, which I had not anticipated becoming the most viewed essay in my humble blog’s brief history, I’ve been thinking more and more about the function of discussion in the classroom. Namely, I am mulling over the question of whether discussion is

1) A pedagogical goal in and of itself

2) A pedagogical tool (a means to an end)

3) Some combination of the two.

As a couple of commenters indicated, in foreign language classrooms where conversational proficiency is one of the ostensible goals of the curriculum, discussion falls into the first category. In a literature classroom like my own, I’m not convinced that the case is so clear cut. As I said in response to those comments, the ability to hold forth in conversation about Mark Twain isn’t really one of my curricular goals, but being able to effectively communicate (with words) ideas about the text is. I think that for me and for most other instructors, our expectations about classroom discussion will probably inevitably reflect individual philosophies and preferences.

But one thing is for sure: participating in discussion is a skill, one that requires a bit of training and practice in addition to self-confidence and verbal proficiency. Yet it is not a skill that gets actively taught, at least not very often. Rather, students are expected to bring the skills for discussion into the classroom, and if their participation is lackluster, they are often labeled as apathetic or recalcitrant. So, I’m going to propose here that we need a pedagogy for discussion. No matter what our individual philosophies about discussion may be, we should recognize that if we expect our students to hold lively, enlightening discussions, we need to actively teach them how to do it.

I love living with a high school teacher, because their training in the fine points of classroom practice is so much more thorough, so much more specific than the training offered to your average graduate student instructor or new faculty member. My partner lent me a copy of Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock’s, Classroom Instruction that Works, a pedagogy manual based on thorough research. In a section on “Reciprocal Teaching,” Marzano et. al. provide a helpful framework for an activity that most of us try to implement with varying degrees of success: the student led discussion. As all teachers know, leading an effective discussion is an art, and allowing students to take over your job for a little while can be an effective method of increasing their confidence/competence with the material. In my experience, however, they often fall flat, and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that I expect discussions to occur organically and spontaneously, that the leader will somehow know instinctively what she is supposed to say to keep her classmates on topic or even to get them to talk at all. Even in the graduate seminars I have taken, it is remarkable how quickly “student led discussions” simply become prepared presentations, because all the student has been asked to do is master the content and maybe come up with a question or two. If those questions fall flat, what is she supposed to do?

Something similar happens in small group discussions guided by a handout containing specific questions about a reading. Often, these activities become about filling out the handout (with one student shouldering the lion’s share of the work) rather than actually having a conversation. There are few opportunities for students to come up with their own questions or approaches to the text and no incentive to exercise the kinds of skills that are crucial to having effective full-class discussions.

Marzano et. al. isolate four components of reciprocal teaching that may be helpful in providing structure and guidance in these situations: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. In the activity the authors describe, a student leader is supposed to lead the class or small group through each of these four components:

Summarizing–After students have silently or orally read a short section of a passage, a single student acting as teacher (i.e., the student leader) summarizes what has been read. Other students, with guidance from the teacher, may add to the summary. If students have difficulty summarizing, the teacher might point out clues (e.g., important items or obvious topic sentences) that aid in the construction of good summaries.

Questioning–The student leader asks some questions to which the class responds. The questions are designed to help students identify important information in the passage. For example, the student leader might look back over the selection and ask questions about specific pieces of information. The other students then try to answer these questions, based on their recollection of the information.

Clarifying–Next, the student leader tries to clarify confusing points in the passage. He might point these out or ask other students to point them out. For example, the student leader might say, “The part about why the dog ran into the car was confusing to me. Can anyone explain this?” Or, the student leader might ask students to ask clarification questions. The group then attempts to clear up the confusing parts. This might involve rereading parts of the passage.

Predicting–The student leader asks for predictions about what will happen in the next segment of the text. The leader can write the predictions on the blackboard or on an overhead, or all students can write them down in their notebooks

This is probably already very close to how you lead discussion yourself in your own class. During, say, the discussion of a short story or portion of a novel, I will usually begin by asking students to summarize the reading, referring to their journals and highlighting details that we may want to go back and examine in closer detail. Then, in a process similar to questioning/clarifying, we return to particular passages to talk about their place in the context of the overall work, why the author chose that particular strategy, how this fits in with the larger themes of the work/class, etc. There’s always an opportunity to discuss perplexing aspects of the work, and then we usually end by talking about what we will need to look for in the next day/week’s reading. I think most of us are able to go through that process rather naturally and instinctively, because we got to where we are today by being good classroom participants and pretty good readers of how a discussion is supposed to “feel.”

For many of our students, however, this process probably feels opaque and arbitrary. It is essential to make the goals and methods of discussion clear at the outset and provide a loose structure to help shape and guide their individual comments. Since I’m just now reading the Marzano text, I obviously haven’t had the opportunity to see how the following lesson plan will work in practice, so everything I’m going to propose here is sort of theoretical.

Small Group Discussions: I like the idea of taking the first two weeks of class, using short stories, to teach students how to discuss using a small group format. Students would be broken up into groups of four or five, and each student would have a day to lead their group through, say, 30 minutes of discussion, using the four components outlined in Marzano et. al. The membership of these small groups could rotate or remain static throughout these initial weeks. The handout would look something like this:

Discussion Leadership Guide

As your group’s discussion leader for the day, it is your job to guide your classmates through the day’s reading using the four stages outlined below. While you should have a strong grasp of the day’s reading (read it two or three times, making careful notes in your journal) it is not your job to dominate the conversation or have all the answers to all possible questions that might come up. Each small group discussion should take about 30 minutes of class time. The specific times allotted to each segment are suggestions, designed to give you a feel for when it may be appropriate to move on to the next segment.

Summary (5 minutes)–Begin discussion by asking your classmates to summarize the day’s reading as a group. Note the major plot points quickly, and get the other group members to note important details that might have been missed but may be essential to understanding the text. You can also bring up details that you want to address during later stages of the discussion. Feel free to drop hints or ask leading questions, but do not perform the entire summary yourself.

Questions (10 minutes)–This is where you begin connecting the details within the text to the larger ideas we are discussing in class. You should prepare two or three questions to get things going or to fall back on if the conversation starts to lag, but leave room for your partners to introduce questions or ideas of their own. Your questions can be as broad as “What is Hawthorne saying about religious tolerance?” or specific, as in “What do you think actually happened to Young Goodman Brown in the story?” or even more specific “What do you make of this particular image?”

Clarification (10 minutes)–Ask your classmates if there were any passages or concepts that they found particularly challenging or confusing. In the event that they do not propose anything, you may which to select a passage that you yourself wish to discuss. You can spend time just figuring out what the author is saying or why they are saying it in that particular way, or you can talk about how it works in the context of the whole reading.

Prediction (5 minutes)–As a group, look briefly at the reading for the next class, which is [by the same author/pertains to the same issue/comes from the same period] and talk about what details you will want to look for and take notes on for the next discussion. You can see if the title or first paragraph hold any clues or speculate as to why it might have been assigned.

–End handout–

I think you could make this an ungraded activity, assign a completion grade, or allow students to evaluate one another. The reason why I assign 30 minutes (of, say, a 50 minute class) to the activity is so that 1) it doesn’t become agonizing, and 2) so that you have the opportunity to debrief. Have each group report on how well their discussion went, whether or not they feel they understand the material better, how each member contributed to making it a profitable experience. I like the idea of using these first couple of weeks to “teach” discussion in order to enable the kind of lively, organic full-class discussions that are the dream of every teacher. One would hope that being asked to lead a discussion would foster empathy for the teacher as well as the self-confidence necessary to become a regular contributor. Nevertheless, I could see returning to this activity later in the semester or giving each student the opportunity to lead the entire class in discussion using this model.

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